Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Iowa

Iowa junior offensive lineman Alaric Jackson waits for the snap in the first quarter against Purdue on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. © Bryon Houlgrave/The Register, Des Moines Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, NFLDraftScout.com will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (22nd season)

2019 Record: 10-3

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Tristan Wirfs, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 1st Round, No. 13 overall

AJ Epenesa, DE, Buffalo Bills – 2nd Round, No. 54 overall

Michael Ojemudia, CB, Denver Broncos – 3rd Round, No. 77 overall

Geno Stone, S, Baltimore Ravens – 7th Round, No. 219 overall

Nate Stanley, QB, Minnesota Vikings – 7th Round, No. 244 overall

Overview:

For the sixth time in his legendary career at Iowa, Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes reached double-digit wins, a mark made emphatic with the team doubling-up USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl.

It was the third consecutive bowl win for the Hawkeyes, putting Ferentz over .500 for his coaching career (9-8). Say what you will about the winning percentage; but consider the consistency - Ferentz has guided Iowa to the postseason 17 times in 21 years. Let that sink in for a moment.

The 2019 Hawkeyes were like many of Ferentz’s past squads, committed to winning “ugly” with a physical and smart defense being the real catalyst behind the team’s success while the offense – especially the passing game – sputtered.

After throwing 26 touchdowns each of prior two seasons, Nate Stanley only connected on 16 last year, struggling in losses to the three best teams on Iowa’s schedule last year – Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin.

While Stanley did not take the step forward hoped, he has tools – enough certainly to warrant the Minnesota Vikings taking a shot on him late. After all, conservative play-calling also served a role in Stanley’s lack of production (and possible development), but the goal, of course, is to win games. Iowa allowed 14 points per game (5 in the FBS) last year with kicker Keith Duncan connecting on 29 field goals. 

In typical Ferentz fashion, the team ironically could have an easier time replacing right tackle Tristan Wirfs – the freak athlete and eventual No. 13 overall pick in the draft – than Stanley or, more likely, star defensive end AJ Epenesa, a steal to the Buffalo Bills in the second round.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Alaric Jackson, OT, 6-6, 320, 5.20, rSR

There aren’t many teams in college football better equipped to lose a superstar to the NFL than the Iowa Hawkeyes, at least when it comes to the offensive line. Since taking over as head coach in 1999, Kirk Ferentz has turned Iowa into a veritable NFL blocker factory with 18 of his offensive linemen being drafted over the past 21 years. That number appears certain to jump next spring with Jackson (not to mention Indiana grad-transfer Coy Cronk), who could join former teammate Tristan Wirfs as a Top 15 draft pick, albeit a year later.

Jackson might have considered joining Wirfs as an early entrant had he not suffered a knee injury in the season opener against Miami of Ohio. The injury sidelined him for the next month and the rust was apparent when the Detroit native made his much-anticipated return against the Michigan and their vaunted pass rush in the Big House, October 5.

Jackson surrendered an early sack to Kwity Paye and the Wolverines smelled blood, overloading to his side and crowding the box as a whole. The Hawkeyes managed just one rushing yard on 30 attempts that day and though quarterback Nate Stanley threw for 260 yards, he was sacked eight times and threw three interceptions. Iowa lost 10-3.

As the season progressed, however, Jackson’s play rose back to the All-Big Ten level he’d shown the two seasons. He went on to start all 10 games in which he played, including a Holiday Bowl win over Southern Cal.

Jackson enters his senior season with 36 career starts already under his belt – all at the critical left tackle position. He’s a mountain of a man who, when healthy, is a proven star with shocking quickness, lateral agility and explosive power. He ranks among the best senior NFL prospects in the country, regardless of position, and is likely to be joining his former teammate, Wirfs, as a first round pick next spring.

Strengths: Absolutely massive with his 320+ pounds well-distributed throughout his hulking frame. Naturally large man with broad shoulders and thick, powerful limbs. Jackson isn’t likely to challenge his former teammate Wirfs’ mind-boggling 4.85 second 40-yard dash time but he was just as quick off the ball throughout much of their careers, with Jackson showing remarkable initial quickness for a man of his size.

He creates immediate push in the running game, beating opponents off the snap and hitting them low and hard with good pad level. Among Jackson’s better traits is the explosive pop on contact he provides, carrying dynamite in his hands to knock back opponents, including unlucky linebackers and defensive backs when he’s on the move. Plays with plenty of nasty, looking to bury opponents when he feels them leaning.

Jackson is just as quick in reverse for pass protection, using a massive kick-step to cut off the corner against speed rushers weighing as much as a 100 pounds less than him and showing graduate-level awareness in his pass-offs to catch late blitzers and twists. Natural knee bender who can anchor, showing good core flexibility and strength, as well as the arm length to sustain. Impressive lateral agility to dance with defensive ends, easily sliding to his left and right to mirror their movements. Takes light, quick steps when doing so, generally showing terrific balance. Durable, proven player with 36 starts in three seasons.

Weaknesses: Still smoothing out his technique in many ways. Takes a massive first kick-step back when he’s worried about a speed rusher, occasionally over-setting and leaving the gate open for counters back to the inside… Relies on powerful shoves to rock opponents but needs to show better timing and placement with his hands. Too many snaps in which he punches, but doesn’t lock on and sustain, with defenders able to withstand his initial blow, disengage and make the play.

On other occasions, Jackson does the opposite, truly latching on and taking defenders for a ride, extending his arms outside of their numbers and grabbing cloth. Quick to the second level but doesn’t re-direct well once there, needing to show greater anticipation of where defenders will be trying to go.

NFL Player Comparison: Taylor Lewan, Tennessee Titans – The Titans made the 6-7, 310 pound Lewan the 11 overall pick in 2014 and the former Michigan star has more than lived up to that selection since, earning three Pro Bowl nods. Jackson has that kind of potential and comes with a similar background as a soon-to-be four-year starting left tackle out of a pro-style offense which faced NFL-caliber competition each practice and game.

Current NFL Draft Projection: First Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Iowa:

1. Alaric Jackson, OT, 6-6, 320, 5.20, rSR

2. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR, 6-0, 185, 4.45, SR

3. Coy Cronk, OT, 6-5, 325, 5.20, rSR

4. Chauncey Golston, DE, 6-4, 270, 4.80, rSR

5. Matt Hankins, CB, 6-0, 185, 4.55, SR

6. Tyler Linderbaum, C, 6-2, 285, 5.10, rSoph

7. Mekhi Sargent, RB, 5-09, 212, 4.60, SR

8. Shaun Beyer, TE, 6-4, 244, 4.77, rSR

9. Jack Koerner, S, 5-11, 205, 4.60, JR

10. Keith Duncan, K, 5-09, 180, 5.0, rSR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates

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